Channeling the Sin-Eater: An Undertaker's Calling

By Lynch, Thomas | Commonweal, August 12, 2011 | Go to article overview

Channeling the Sin-Eater: An Undertaker's Calling


Lynch, Thomas, Commonweal


If, as Samuel Beckett wrote, all poetry is prayer, my devotions began in earnest thirty-some years ago when a habit of reading poems begat the practice of writing them. Writers are readers who go karaoke--first humming along, then singing along, then making up plainchants that sound like their own.

Raised as a Catholic, I grew up associating food with forgiveness, confession with Communion, and I had taken up my father's undertaking and ran the family mortuary. So among my earliest poems were those about a sin-eater--a functionary at funerals from a former time who, for his daily bread and a small fee, took unto himself the sins of the dead, and then, like the goat of the ancient Jews, escaped to the wilderness laden with the burdens of perdition. We had a lot in common: both catholic in sensibility, both Celtic at the margins and marginally pagan, both beholden to corpses and mourners to keep body and soul together, both here-today-and-gone-tomorrow sorts. Argyle, the sin-eater, did not bear my biography--I was a husband, father, Rotarian, an officer of the Chamber of Commerce--but we shared so much identity. I could never shake him. His episodes kept turning up in the manuscripts that became the books of poems I would eventually publish.

Argyle first came into being in the hard winter of 1984-My sons were watching a swashbuckler on TV, The Master of Ballantrae, based on Robert Louis Stevenson's novel about Scots brothers and their imbroglios. I was dozing in the wing chair after a long day at the funeral home, waking at intervals too spaced to follow the narrative arc.

But one scene I half wakened to involved a corpse laid out on a board in front of a stone tower house, kinsmen and neigh bors gathered round in the gray, sodden moment. Whereupon a figure of plain force, part pirate, part panhandler, dressed in tatters, unshaven and wild-eyed, assumed what seemed a liturgical stance over the body, swilled beer from a wooden bowl, and tore at a heel of bread with his teeth. Wiping his face on one arm, with the other he thrust his open palm at the woman nearest him. She pressed a coin into it spitefully and he took his leave. Everything was gray: the rain and fog, the stone tower, the mourners, the corpse, the countervailing ambivalences between the widow and the horrid man. Swither-ing is the Scots word for it--to be of two minds, in two realities at once: grudging and grateful, faithful and doubtful, broken and beatified, caught between a mirage and an apocalypse. The theater of it was breathtaking, the bolt of drama. It was over in ten, maybe fifteen, seconds.

I knew him at once.

The scene triggered a memory of a paragraph I'd read twelve years before in mortuary school, from The History of American Funeral Directing by Robert W. Habenstein and William M. Lamers. I still have the first edition, by Bulfin Printers of Milwaukee, circa 1955. The paragraph at the bottom of page 128, in chapter 3, reads:

  A nod should be given to customs that disappeared.
  Puckle tells of a curious functionary, a sort of male
  scapegoat called the "sin-eater." It was believed in
  some places that by eating a loaf of bread and drinking
  a bowl of beer over a corpse, and by accepting a
  six-pence, a man was able to take unto himself the sins
  of the deceased, whose ghost thereafter would no longer
  wander.

"Puckle" was Bertram S. Puckle, a British scholar, whose Funeral Customs, Their Origin and Development would take me another forty years to find and read. But the bit of cinema and the passage from the book had aligned like tumblers of a combination lock clicking into place and opening a vault of language and imagination.

I was named for a dead priest: my father's uncle. Some few years after surviving the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, that Thomas Lynch got "the call." ("Vocations follow famine," an Irish bromide holds. Famines and flus?) He went to seminary in Detroit and Denver and was ordained in the middle of the Great Depression. …

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